ARTICLE BY: BRUCE WAKEFIELD
Bruce Wakefield is an HPSO member, previous HPSO Board President, HPSO Office Administrator, and co-owner of Old Germantown Gardens.
It’s hard to imagine drifts of towering Himalayan lilies during the gray days of January, but very soon their dormant bulbs will start to emerge. The giant Himalayan lilies, or Cardiocrinum giganteum, are a sight to behold in early June. These late days of winter are the perfect time to divide some of the more crowded Cardiocrinum bulbs.
Cardiocrinums make a spectacular statement in the garden! Whether they are in full bloom or in seed pod, they add interest to the garden in several seasons. Shown below are blooming plants in the early summer.
Shown below are the seed pods in winter. The pods gradually open up; the seed is scattered by the wind in December and January (perhaps with a little guiding help from the gardener, too).
After blooming, the main plant dies, it having spent all its bulb’s stored energy in order to push up the towering flowering stalk. The good news is that if the plant was happy, it grew some bulblets (or offsets) at the base of the plant. So, all is not lost! The offsets/bulbs can be divided. But rather than divide the clump immediately, experience has shown that it pays to wait until after the next bloom cycle. This way, many of the offsets will have bulked up a bit more, ensuring more will survive division and transplanting (and there will be lots more of them, too)!
Late winter and/or early spring is a great time for dividing cardiocrinums. Shown below is a clump that is ready for division. (Without occasional dividing, the bulbs become too packed and are unable to gain much size nor store enough energy to bloom.) Cut off the old stalks, and then use a fork to gently lift the clump out of the ground.
Next, use a hose to get off as much soil from the clump as possible. You will be able to see the bulbs better. Gently pull the bulbs apart, making sure to retain as many of the roots as possible. Throw the old stalks away; they are done forever. Do not let the bulbs dry out! (Experience has shown that cardiocrinum bulbs suffer badly when the roots dry up, and this is probably why mail-order, shipped bulbs seldom thrive. It is better to purchase live plants or grow your own from seed.) The clump below yielded 15 bulbs of various sizes.
Plant the bulbs so that they are at the same depth as you saw them before digging up the clump (with the growing tips just barely showing above the surface). If desired, it’s fine to use a mulch to lightly cover them a bit more; they will soon pop above the mulch and become a happy group of plants!
You can, of course, also grow Cardiocrinums from seed. It just takes a lot longer – up to 7 years to get a flowering-size plant. Shown below are seeds scattered on the ground (left). Whether you are scattering seeds on the ground or growing them in pots, just barely cover the seeds with a light organic soil – enough soil so that they don’t blow away! Keep the seeds slightly moist; do not let them dry out during the summer. After two winters, you will see grass-like seedlings emerge (photo below). (Note: during the first year, the seeds are growing underground. They won’t put up their first leaves until the year after that. This is called hypogeal germination and is common among many liliaceae species.)
After the 3rd winter, the first true leaves will appear (photo below). From this point on, how long it takes for the seedlings to become blooming-size plants depends on how fast the bulbs grow and can store up enough energy to push up the flowering stalk. It could be three more years or longer. (Again, when the plants are in leaf, do not let them completely dry out as they will then go dormant. If they go dormant, then they are not producing the food they need to store in their bulbs!)
Soon you will have a “glade” of cardiocrinums in your garden and at least some will bloom each year!